“The third verse of the national anthem is not very well known in the United States,” Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), tells me, exasperated, over the phone. “Here’s how it ends: ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. / And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
“That is our ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” he says, pausing to let the words sink in. Then he explains: “The Colonial Marines, a group of black slaves who fought with the British during the war of 1812 [for their freedom], were part of the troop that drove the Americans back into Washington, DC, and set the White House on fire. And four weeks later, Francis Scott Key is in Baltimore and he writes this national anthem—and he is celebrating the murder of slaves.”
Robinson, a veteran criminal-defense lawyer and self-avowed student of an untold American history, pulls it all together. “When people have a debate today over ‘respect’ for the anthem, I think it’s interesting to pull the covers away and take a closer look at what’s really there.”
Robinson, who joined the ACLU two and a half years ago, has been touring the country with a talk filled with these kinds of bracing revelations. It’s called “Who We Are,” and it traces the history of racial oppression in the United States of America. In 2011, after a death in the family, his wife’s nephew was sent from New York City to live with them in Seattle. “A lot of the [racial-justice] issues that had been critically important to me took on a new tone, because I now had a young black man in my home,” he says. His nephew, who wanted to “do things like other kids,” to hang out with friend and go out at night, brought with it anxiety for Robinson. “I started having real concern about what was going to or could happen to him.” The result of his worry became a long study into our nation’s violent racist history.
There is power in knowing this history, Robinson believes, a power that will help us on the path to a more equitable society. He hopes that the talks he’s given—which will culminate in New York City on June 19 in an event featuring performances by Alfre Woodard, Amy Ryan, and the Resistance Revival Chorus—will open the door to a much more expansive project around reckoning with our past.
The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
The Nation: Your event in New York City is happening on Juneteenth. What’s the significance there?
Juneteenth is the earliest recognized celebration of enslaved people being freed, June 19. It’s a day that’s been traditionally celebrated in the black community in America, and we thought it was appropriate to have that event on that day because the history of that day is so critically important to understanding how and why we got to where are in June 2018.